Is the glass half full or half empty? Today the European Parliament passed proposals to allow EU member states to permanently ban the cultivation of GMO crops on their territories, even if scientific assessments show that the crop is safe and environmentally beneficial. This law – which was passed by 480 votes to 159 – formally sidelines the European Food Standards Agency by allowing member states to ban not just specific crops or traits, but the entire class of ‘GMOs’, without the need to provide any meaningful scientific evidence to support this ban.
The European Parliament press release makes this perfectly clear:
The new rules would allow member states to ban GMOs on environmental policy grounds other than the risks to health and the environment already assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Member states could also ban GMO crops on other grounds, such as town and country planning requirements, socio-economic impact, avoiding the unintended presence of GMOs in other products and farm policy objectives. Bans could also include groups of GMOs designated by crop or trait.
The biotechnology industry is understandably furious, because it knows that it now has no chance of getting new seeds and crops approved for cultivation across the entire EU – which will no longer operate as a Europe-wide free market.
According to Jeff Rowe, Chairman of the Agri-Food Council of EuropaBio (press release here):
Member States will receive a license to ban safe products which have been approved at European level, and they will be allowed to base these bans on non-scientific grounds. This sets a dangerous precedent for the internal market and sends a negative signal to innovative industries considering investing in Europe. European researchers and farmers have lost access to this key-enabling technology and the chance to grow more sustainable crops and remain competitive globally.
That’s the glass half empty view. I agree with it in principle: after all, allowing anti-GMO activists to dictate agricultural policy across most EU countries is a bit like allowing homeopaths and anti-vaccine campaigners to take over European health services. But this is democracy I guess – there is no rule that says truth will always triumph over superstition in a free vote. Sometimes fearmongering works. No doubt a medieval version of the European Parliament would also have passed legislation to burn witches.
So why is the glass also half full? Because member states like the UK where a more pro-science attitude is prevalent will be able to go ahead with cultivation of GMO crops without now being blocked by the forever-anti states like Austria, Hungary and France. So the latter countries, with their strong Green parties, can continue to blast their fields with fungicides, insecticides and other agro-chemicals while we in the UK can use genetically improved crops which require little to no toxic chemicals to protect them against pests and diseases.
Johnjoe McFadden, Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey, spoke for the glass-half-full portion of the scientific community by saying:
Devolving decisions down to national level will allow each country to make up their own mind and thereby free up GM technology from the pressure of intense anti-GM lobbying at the centre of the EU. Farmers and consumers across the EU will be more accepting of GM technology when they can see its benefits across their borders.
I think Professor McFadden gets it right. Yes, Europe is now irrevocably split. But at least the blockers can no longer stop science-based agricultural innovation indefinitely across the entire continent. Hopefully in the UK and some other countries like Spain and the Netherlands, farmers will soon be able to choose better crops to improve productivity and reduce chemical dependence – even as politicians and activists across the borders in France and elsewhere continue to foam at the mouth and spout their anti-GMO nonsense. Seeing is believing, and at least now we will have a chance to show that GM crops can work in Europe – in some countries at least.
Oh, and the Greens are against it, so it can’t be all bad.